The Indian Army’s shift from the western borders to the northern borders following the 2020 confrontation with China, along with the insights gained from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, are influencing the ongoing transformation of the Army Air Defence (AAD).
A variety of new systems, predominantly of indigenous origin, are being introduced, incorporating new technologies that account for the current realities. A new automation initiative called Project Akashteer is bringing everything together, aiming to establish a comprehensive air defence framework for monitoring, tracking, and engaging air defence assets.
In March 2023, a contract worth approximately ₹2,000 crores was signed for Akashteer, a networking and automation project modelled after the Indian Air Force’s Integrated Air Command and Control System network. “This is a significant initiative, and the entire implementation is expected to be completed by March 2024,” stated a defence source, highlighting its rapid pace considering that the approval of qualitative requirements was granted only in December 2019.
“The project will connect all the radars and control centres of AAD, consolidating the air defence picture by eliminating duplications or overlaps and integrating all the weapons. The need of the hour is a comprehensive air defence solution,” explained the source. Akashteer will also have the capability to communicate with the IAF’s network.
Shift in Focus
Before the 2020 standoff with China, the Army primarily focused on India’s western border with Pakistan. However, air defence requirements differ on the northern borders compared to the western front. The need now lies in lightweight radars and weapon systems with mobility for deployment in mountainous regions while catering to the specific demands of the infantry, according to a source familiar with the procurement plans.
The conflict in Ukraine has also necessitated adjustments in air defence strategies to address emerging threats such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), loitering munitions, swarm drones, and cruise missiles.
New Technological Advancements
The Ukraine conflict demonstrated the high effectiveness of Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) equipped with night vision capabilities. The Indian Army is focusing on laser beam-riding MANPADS and has already initiated the procurement process. Another area of emphasis is the development of gallium nitride-based radar modules, which can significantly reduce weight—an important factor in mountainous terrain.
Loitering munitions pose another emerging threat to air defences. To counter this, high-rate gun systems, improved optic sights, fragmented ammunition, and active electronically scanned array radars are considered the most effective solutions.
Induction of New Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs)
In March 2023, the Defense Ministry entered into a contract worth over ₹8,160 crore with Bharat Dynamics Limited for two regiments of enhanced Akash surface-to-air missile systems. These Akash regiments are specifically tailored for mountainous regions, with modifications made after a year of trials, according to two sources. The deliveries and induction of these systems are expected to take place within the next few years, as the production is already underway and the domestic capabilities have progressed well.
While the indigenous Akash missile covers short-range capabilities, the medium-range surface-to-air missile project, a collaborative effort between the Defense Research Development and Organisation (DRDO) and Israel, is currently being inducted. Additionally, DRDO is independently developing a quick reaction surface-to-air missile, addressing another critical requirement, and has conducted multiple successful tests. At the lower end of the weapons spectrum, efforts are being made to procure air defence guns, a process that has been ongoing since 1986. Fresh bids in this segment are now being solicited, as per sources.
However, officials have acknowledged that the global shortage of components and hardware for air defence systems, resulting from the conflict in Ukraine, could potentially slow down the pace of inductions. For instance, there is a scarcity of chips for radars, which could hinder manufacturing and deliveries as these chips are primarily imported, noted an official.
The Army Air Defence, previously known as Air Defence Artillery until 2005, has been in existence since 1940, although its ground-based air defence capabilities have increasingly shifted to the Air Force. The modernization of the AAD has faced stagnation since 1996, with several unsuccessful procurement attempts in various segments over the past decade. However, modernization efforts have gained momentum recently, and with an emphasis on indigenization, several indigenous systems are being introduced, according to defence sources.